New to the Ackland: An Asante Fertility Figure

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A brown wooden fertility figure of a woman with a large round head

This miniature female figure, barely more than eight inches tall, is made up of elegantly fashioned minimalist shapes: a flat oval head, stacked neck rings, horizontal arms, and columnar torso ending in a circular base. The oversized head and neck represent well over half the sculpture’s total height. We should resist any temptation to call this piece a “doll,” as it served a much more serious purpose for its adult owner amongst the Asante people of the area that is now Ghana.

A woman hoping to conceive a child would have the figure consecrated by a priest and then wear it on her back, wrapped in a cloth as a real infant would be. It would often be given gifts and adornments such as beads. The Ackland’s recently acquired example has holes around the top of the head and a wire remnant that presumably held such decorations. The delicate mouth and
almond eyes are set below arching brows under a large forehead and above the neck with rolls of fat, reflecting the culture’s ideals of physical and spiritual beauty. Also notable is the abstract geometric design on the back of the head, perhaps against witchcraft, with which infertility, miscarriages, and infant death are associated. Asante society is matrilineal, and these figures are always female. Their African name derives from the local legend of Akua, a barren woman who was mocked for following a priest’s instructions to carry such a wooden figure, derided by fellow villagers as “Akua’ba” (Akua’s child).

After influencing pregnancy, such figures were sometimes returned to shrines as offerings of thanks and sometimes kept as family heirlooms and memorials.
Our figure, which shows signs of use and some slight damage, was collected bythe donors in Ghana in the early 1970s and probably dates to the 1950s.

—Peter Nisbet

Image Credit:

Unidentified artist, Ghana, Asante culture, Fertility Figure (Akua’Ba), c. 1950s, painted wood with wire remnant, 8 1/8 × 2 15/16 in. (20.6 × 7.5 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gift of Reginald and Celeste Hodges, 2022.12.